Just a few days after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman crowed triumphantly about the federal government’s response to the disaster. “[A]fter Katrina the government seemed to have no idea what it was doing; this time it did. And that’s no accident: the federal government’s ability to respond effectively to disaster always collapses when antigovernment Republicans hold the White House, and always recovers when Democrats take it back.”
What a fairy tale. Mature adults understand that earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters are an unfortunate fact of life. They further know that government agencies are, by their very nature, slow and lumbering animals.
Krugman was right about one thing, though. Sandy would not be Obama’s Katrina because the press is on his side. President Obama parachuted into New Jersey after the storm and declared that he would not tolerate “red tape” or “bureaucracy” by the government. He then hopped back aboard Air Force One and resumed his campaign schedule. His admirers, including, alas, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and the besotted Krugman, swooned.
Six days after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, President Bush’s presidency had been declared a failure and a disgrace. It was all FEMA’s fault we were given to understand, and by extension, Bush’s fault. It wasn’t the incompetence of local and state officials or the levee collapse (a failure, by the way, that impartial observers lay at the feet of another government agency going back years, the Army Corps of Engineers). No, within a few days of the storm’s impact, Bush was an enemy of the people.
Six days after Sandy hit the East Coast, most of the press had utterly lost interest in the human toll, though thousands of people went without food, water, gasoline or electricity for the better part of two weeks. The Washington Times reported that two weeks after Sandy, “Bodies are still being recovered in Staten Island. Chaos reigns in the streets of the outer boroughs. Residents have taken up arms — baseball bats, machetes, shotguns — as crime and looting soar.”
When New York Senator Chuck Schumer visited Staten Island four days after the storm hit, a desperate constituent begged him, “Where is the government? We need gasoline! We’re gonna die. We’re gonna freeze.”
It took three days for the Red Cross to reach Staten Island — ditto for FEMA. For those without power or water, that’s a very long time. What happened to the “lean forward” strategy FEMA had supposedly put in place? What became of the prepositioning of supplies like water and blankets? Prepackaged meals and bottled water languished in Georgia and Maryland warehouses, reported Breitbart.com.
Other obstacles hampered the relief effort, as well, including the insistence by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that linemen from other states join the union before being permitted to pitch in with power restoration. Red tape apparently sidelined as many as 500 others. Some 50 power generators and 150,000 blankets were sent to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, a FEMA staging area in central New Jersey, but had still not been deployed 9 days after the storm due to bureaucratic inertia.
Perhaps most damaging were the policies of the governments of New York and New Jersey forbidding “price gouging” on gasoline. As Russ Roberts of the Hoover Institution noted drily, “There was no gouging, and there was no gas.” Had stations been able to raise prices even temporarily, it would have been cost-effective to lease generators to pump the gas out of in-ground tanks, where it sat, untapped, for more than a week. Instead, people could not stir from their frozen homes even to pick up supplies at the supermarkets, far less to reach medical care or help stranded elderly relatives. Lack of gasoline significantly prolonged the suffering caused by the storm.
Rather than permit prices to rise temporarily, residents of New Jersey and New York sat on lines for as much as three hours hoping to fill their tanks — sometimes only to find at the end of the ordeal that the available gas was gone. In New York, where the government decided to give gas away for free from the few working stations, there were scenes of desperation, fist fights, and worse.
This is not to say that government has no proper role in disaster relief, merely that there are clear lessons from the failures of the Sandy response that are being missed as the Krugmans of this world strain themselves applauding Obama.
Mona Charen is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.